The 4X strategy is not quite as starved a subgenre as it used to be, a resurgence of love towards the final frontier of space has created many a Galactic Civilisation II or Master of Orion wannabes it's fantastic, there's no better time to be a fan of space exploration, expansion, exploitation and extermination.
But what fans really want is a game that offers something different, which many just aren't doing, Stardrive from Zero Sum Games hopes to offer that difference in their new 4X space strategy that holds ship design and combat engineering at its heart, the only trouble is, is the rest of the game up to scratch?
Now Stardrive is not exactly a traditional 4X strategy, as you have no control over your turns which happen every 5 seconds automatically and increment your star date by .1, the concept is quite scary however Stardrive effectively pulls off the strategy subgenre, but to long time turn-based fans it sure takes a lot of getting used to, and at times it can feel like your overall control of a situation has been lost, however with the ability to pause, speed up and slow down time at will, it's not difficult to get comfortable in this new play style.
Unfortunately in its currently released state, Stardrive only provides players with a single player sandbox experience there is no multiplayer of which to speak of nor is there any form of skirmish or story based campaign which may leave players that demand a bit of focus at somewhat of a loss, and with only 2 different means of victory diplomatic or military supremacy through either eliminating or forming a peaceful federation, but that isn't to say the game is going to get old quick, as players can freshen their experience with a host of over 50 community mods already available.
Where Stardrive strives for originality is in your ability to change and build the design of your ships, this isn't to say you can go about creating brand new weapons of destruction, but you can chop and change the inner-workings of the preexisting hulls for the purpose you see fit. The only problem with this feature, whilst a brilliant idea, is that it is very much trial and error unless you are versed in the basic theory of engineering, in fact if you start reverse engineering preexisting ship designs it becomes far easier to grasp exactly why your intricately designed ship was worthless on the battlefield.
Economy in Stardrive is very simple and yet very different to other 4X Strategies, because raising your taxes isn't going to result in an unhappy populace, instead what it does is reduces the rate of your other two resources; production and research, so you can dive into your Scrooge McDuck pools of money without anyone batting an eyelid, but it does mean that you'll be living in the past in terms of technologies and you'll be able to build all of a couple of ships before you run out of production resources. But that isn't to say that money isn't important, quite the opposite because if you ever slip into minus figures you'll not be able to pay maintenance on your buildings or ships and will find your units and planets won't take long to rebel.
Expansion through research is a little tame in Stardrive, races do not get exclusivity in the skills tree, and its offerings aren't as diverse as as most space strategies, which can leave replability on different skill paths a little lacklustre. If it helps everything is laid out for you as logically as possible, so you won't be wasting your precious research points trying to find out if Xeno Computing is exactly what you want. Unfortunately exploration in the game is also very basic, and the most you'll find in the deep expanse of space will be the odd anomaly which you can send a ship to investigate, but that's about it.
Picking and choosing your race in a 4X strategy doesn't usually come down to much, the odd perk here and there, possibly a unique class of ship, some extra research skills and different victory conditions, this is where Stardrive gets a little grey. At the start of a game you can choose your race, however the race can be changed with a series of different traits much like an RPG, and, in theory you can set up any race to act exactly the same as another, however picking a certain race does open up different ship hulls which makes for discernibly different layouts; a big part of the game. Otherwise it would seem that picking to play as a different race doesn't make very much of a difference.
Unlike the automated combat in the more recent Endless Space, Stardrive tackles conflicts much like an RTS; tactical fleet management is a necessity, and simply going into a fight ill-prepared will often leave your units picked off one-by-one, just because you've got a high-class ship doesn't mean it can take down your swarming enemy, combat is not ruled on stats, but strategy, which is quite a rarity indeed. Another very unique feature of Stardrive is that you can manually control of any of your vehicles at any point in time, it could best be compared to Drox Operative where you can fly your ships with the WASD keys, this may sound pretty useless and trivial, but Stardrive uses accurate damage systems, so swerving at the opportune moment may ensure that the weak spots are not hit on your most important ships.
Anyone that has tackled a 4X strategy in the past will know that unless you are alright to sit down and tinker with its many intricacies for a few hours then it's going to be a while before you fully grasp the game, now Stardrive does come included with a set of video tutorials to introduce you to the different aspects of the game, however personally as a Kinesthetic learner I didn't really have much hope, I, just as many others much prefer a hands-on instruction, which was a shame to see this lacking.
As a game developed entirely by one individual, what's so surprising is that there are a great many extra touches to immerse you even further in the large expansive universe of Stardrive, for instance obligatory soothing orchestral music is present and utterly beautiful, each race has their own distinct and humourous personalities, not to mention such dazzling art and animation work for each diplomacy screen, these small, but effective features don't necessarily 'make' the game, but help to build up the perfect environment for space exploration.
I wouldn't usually mention technical issues so bluntly but Stardrive having been made by one guy, isn't exactly perfect, and despite running a beta phase, it seems as though he wasn't able to iron out all of the kinks. Worst of all, these kinks don't begin to show until you're well into a game, we can only hope that more patches are currently in the works.
Stardrive has done what many other 4X Strategies could not and successfully revitalised areas such as combat that a lot of similar games had ducked out of, battles are not waged on stats and modifiers, but raw tactics and effective fleet management, and once you've gotten your head around how to engineer a great ship you open up the true potential of this beautiful game, which makes it all the more disheartening that when you really get stuck in you're met with instabilities that cannot be ignored.
Stardrive is available now for Windows PC in all good stores and digital distribution sites, if you're tossing-up between physical and digital, we really recommend you purchase a retail copy of the game, because it includes a collectible trading card!